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UKGE: A Demoer’s Diary


UKGE has been and gone for another year, and what an Expo it has been – 3 big halls, a hotel, a viking camp and 32,000 unique visitors despite a rail worker’s strike and local hotels getting wise to the fact that UKGE weekend means lots of cash-carrying geeks needing food and lodging (look hotels, in case you’re wondering if upping the price on rooms for this weekend is a good idea, might I recommend reading the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs – Spoiler: it does not end well). For all you attendees that attended, I hope you had as good a time as I did, because I had a Wailord of a time and, though I am a wee bit on the plum-tuckered side, I wouldn’t miss working it for the world.

Yes, it is true, I am one of the unsung heroes of UKGE, and occasionally Tabletop Live and Airecon. My name is Rob, I am a demoer and this is my UKGE diary.

Day 1: Thursday – Get Up, Set Up… Set Up All The Games…

If you came to any of the three days of UKGE, you will have probably… possibly… thought ‘wow, this must have taken some set up’. And you would be absolutely right. On Thursday, a motley crew of vendors, handypeeps and demoers turn up bright and breezy to an almost empty set of halls and have approximately 24 hours or so to get everything set up. This year, however, we’ve been given a head start on set up (most of the padded floors, of which I noticed at least one person being grateful for during the weekend, had been set up) so we could get on with putting up tables and chairs, banners and placards. The company I work for (yes, that one… you know) had seven stands to set up and our small but perfectly formed team set them up stand by stand, making sure that all the tables were in the right places with the correct number of chairs and the correct colour of table cloths.

We almost had enough tables.

What you may not realise is that each vendor/demoer/promotion booth will have hired so many tables and chairs prior to the event, so if they are not delivered to the right place at the right time, thinks can get pretty frustrating. Fortunately, the missing tables were found and we could set up all the stands just so. Of course, things may look better on paper than they do IRL, so a bit of mild tweaking was necessary to make sure that players could get into the play areas and, more importantly, get out again.

After a bite of lunch, it’s on to the fun bit: setting up the games. To put paid to a common myth, no, we don’t get to keep the games after the Expo but we often get to open a lot of new games, so there are definitely benefits (we also get paid, which kinda offsets the expense that will inevitably come from working a games expo). This will involve a lot of cardboard punching, card sorting, board assembling, bag filling and occasionally card sleeving. Some people have very strong feelings about whether to sleeve or not to sleeve, but if a game is going to be played through dozens of times over the weekend, it probably makes sense to keep the components in tip top condition.

As you can imagine, there are lot of games to get in place for seven stands and over a hundred demoers, so it takes a while to get this done. By the time we’ve finished, other demoers are beginning to arrive for familiarisation – essentially a couple of hours spent getting to know the rules of the games they will be demonstrating over the weekend. And what is the best way of learning? By playing of course! I told you this was a good job.

This year, I am on the Preview Stand, and the hottest game on the stand is Expeditions, the sequel to Scythe that is more card based that board based and has some very nice minis (but less in number than the original game). I am expecting there to be a lot if interest in this game over the weekend, so I think it’s probably a good idea to get to know how it plays, just in case I get to, you know, demonstrate it. A small group of us give it a quick run through to find the kinks and bugs so we have an idea of what the FAQS (frequently asked questions) for this game will be. Then it’s time to be gone as security will be on us to clear the place out. Back to base it is then.

Some demoers and vendors will be based close to the NEC for obvious reasons, but our group is based in Birmingham centre for also obvious reasons. One, there’s over a hundred of us and rooms close to the NEC during this weekend do not come cheap (see previous comment about golden geese) and two, it’s nice to get a break from the halls for a while. There’s nothing to stop us from hanging out at the Hilton after hours, of course, and many do – only problem is that the trains are a bit sketchy due to industrial action, so the laid-on coach will be a god-send.

The good thing about all being based in the same hotel is that wherever we are staying becomes a fringe-con – many of us come gamed-up, so as long as there is space in the bar/lobby/breakfast area, there will be games going on. Birmingham is also not shy when it comes to eateries and drinkeries – sure, the NEC has Resort World to provide most of your food and drink needs, but there is not much in the way of general stores or supermarkets.

The Thursday evening is always a bit subdued as people arrive in dribs and drabs, but me and a group of demo-buds manage to get in a couple of games of Let’s Summon Demons (no, Nick, it is NOT Catan – AND NEITHER IS SPACE BASE!) and No Thanks. No Thanks? Yes Please!

Day 2: Do You Want To Play A Game?

The first official day of UKGE. I have managed to get a few hours’ sleep (I always get over-excited at Expo) and after making myself presentable in my new cerulean demoer’s shirt, it’s down to breakfast to cram as many pastries as I can get into ma belly as I can. Getting a decent breakfast in is very important to a demoer as you aren’t entirely sure when you will be getting time for lunch – a rota will be arranged, but if you are in the middle of introducing a game or need to stand in for someone running a game, you might not get anywhere near a sandwich until mid-afternoon. I will agree with The Dice Tower here by saying that should pay heed to the 1 – 2 – 5 rule when it comes to conventions: shower at least once a day, eat at least twice and get at least five hours sleep.

Being based away from the NEC means we can also pick up some essentials for the day: throat sweets, because we will be talking a lot; lunch, because though we do get a whole hour for lunch we want to spend that checking out the stands, not queuing for a burger; and cordial drops because water, though crucial, is boring. Hydration is very important – we’re 69 – 74% water, so if you are on your feet all day, it’s important to keep that carbon-based water balloon you call a body going.

After a short but slightly confused bus journey, we arrive at the NEC for just after 8:30 – doors open at nine, so we’d better get a wriggle on. There is already a queue - nothing too terrifying, but we are exhibitors so get fast tracked through another door (word of advice: always get your keycard rescanned before you head for your hotel room at the end of the day as the metal detector WILL have wiped it). Coats and bags deposited, it’s off to the Preview Stand... where someone is already setting up Expeditions. Ah. No matter. I’ve got about… 10 minutes to get Marvel D.A.G.G.E.R. set up and learned. No stress.

Ten minutes later and I’m still setting up, seeing as the editor of the rulebook has decided to lead with ‘setting up your hero’ – BOARD FIRST, HERO AFTER! Sheesh. The Tannoy announces that the doors are now open and the first eager customers stream into the halls. We are set about half way up hall one, so we have a moment to brace for impact. Also, because we are on the Preview Stand, there is only one way in or out – we are a velvet rope away from being a VIP lounge. I have a few extra moments to set up the board, safe in the knowledge that anyone who comes in will be making a bee-line for Expeditions. Also, for the first half hour or so at least, most people will be having a wander around to get a feel for the place (another word of advice: if there is a game being demoed that you DEFINITELY want to play, get on it in that first half hour – consider it akin to getting to a theme park as soon as the gates open so you can ride the Vomitron 3000 before the queue gets exponential).

Usually, part of a demoers role will be to get you, general public, to sit down and try our wares - see us furtively try to make eye contact to gauge your interest. Working on the Preview Stand is a new experience as the general public are coming to ME! Imagine! Although I wish they’d give me a chance to finish reading the rule… oh hello! You want to play this? That’s great!

[scrabbles at the rule book, back to the ‘setting up your hero’ section]

Well, seeing as this is the first time that this game has been out of the box… anywhere, let’s do something fun – let’s learn together!

Actually, it turns out that this IS a lot of fun. Demoers at UKGE may not be infallible, but they do get the gist of things pretty quickly, and once we have got all the heroes set up, I’m already thinking about the patter I’ll use for the next set of players.

Yes, we may not have an official script, but we will definitely have patter, and though it might be a bit sketchy at first, it will get better.

So, we start to play, with me dashing around the table, trying to get an angle on what’s going on and see what cards and abilities do what for later plays. Things spiral out of control pretty quickly, but as Loki and his minions swarm across the globe as players fail their rolls spectacularly left right and centre, there are plenty of laughs and groans to be had.

Before the whole thing falls apart and the forces of good are crushed by the forces of chaos, I call time on the game, letting players know that this is just a taster and that this is the first time that this game has been seen or played anywhere – which is true. In a manner of speaking.

‘This looks just like Eldritch Horror. Is this a remake of Eldritch Horror?’

Like I said, demoers are not infallible, so I pull my coyest coy face and say, ‘you may well say that… I couldn’t possibly comment,’ whilst switching from ‘coy’ to ‘cheeky, knowing smirk’ – it’s all about the show, keep ‘em laughing as you go…

Well, that makes things a little easier to grasp… or it would do if I had played Eldritch Horror. I might have done, to be honest, but… so many years, so many games. It does mean I can add to my script though: ‘are you familiar with Eldritch Horror?’ [yes] ‘well, you can do my job then – carry on! (pause for laughs)’; [no] ‘well, this is a completely new game, the like of which have never been seen before! (pause for laughs)’

The next play goes a lot more smoothly, and slowly but surely, I am able to provide the players with a short but enjoyable experience that showcases as much of the game as possible – hitting those hero combos, bringing down a T-Rex with an Omnibeam or just getting the Hulk to slam Loki repeatedly into the ground (puny god). And that’s what being a demoer is all about – giving the players a fun time. If they decide to get the game later (and from the photos of the box being taken, I suspect there will be a few purchases along the way) then all well and good and I have done my job.

Before I know it, it is lunch time, when us demoers get to prowl the halls, making the most of our time to track down some choice acquisitions and catch up with fellow demoers and civilians who are also at the Expo. And now we get an hour, perhaps a browse in the Bring and Buy?

[sees queue]

Perhaps not a browse in the Bring and Buy then.

Things are really hotting up around the hotness, Expeditions, so a reservations list has been set up for players – not only on that game but on the other games featured too. The new Witcher game is almost as popular as Expeditions and is even rarer (there is only ONE copy of this in the country as opposed to the four of Expeditions), Great Wall is getting great interest, and the word about a new Marvel game has got out, so I now have a full dance card for the day, which gives me the opportunity to say ‘are you my two o’clock?’ etc. to groups of players when they arrive at the table.

I’m really starting to get my head around the game now, am really hitting my stride, only occasionally needing to refer to the rulebook for minor rule clarifications – not quite the rulebook lawyer yet, but getting there. I am also starting to get demoer’s Stock-hold Syndrome. This is like Stockholm Syndrome, but it’s where you end up wanting to get the game you are demoing, regardless of the cost. Fortunately, D.A.G.G.E.R. will not be released until the end of June at the earliest, so I should be safe. For now.

The Tannoy announces the hall closures, so it’s time to put away the game. I could throw the tablecloth over the board, but I want to change up some of the characters for tomorrow, make a classic Avengers line up with Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk and Black Widow. I’m leaving Jane Foster as Thor because… it adds a bit of balance. Besides, I like her character.

Back to the hotel after UKGE we go, and Friday night is the night for big games (as games exhaustion has not kicked in yet). After we’ve ventured into Birmingham for some victuals, of course, and I must recommend the Tap and Spile (one of the last), or the WetherNotSpoons as it was renamed. Very good burger and drink deal. Fed and watered, we are ready for gaming.

In the hotel lobby, a game of Blood on the Clocktower has been set up and various other boards are popping up on various tables. Some demoers have stayed at the NEC to catch The Dark Room or meet up with non-demoing friends. The trains are still very patchy, so I am playing it safe tonight with a five-player game of Space Base, For The Queen (an excellent card-based story-telling game that is not quite a role playing game… or a game, really… but is a lot of fun) and a few hands of No Thanks. I managed to stick to the 1 – 2 – 5 rule but… only just.

Day 3: Eat, Sleep, Game, Repeat

I am feeling surprisingly chipper this morning, considering the late hour that we were playing to, but I am also starting to feel the Sads. I enjoy this job so much that each day I do it comes tinged with the melancholy that it means one day less to do it. Ah, don’t mourn that it has passed; celebrate that it ever happened.

After pastries, mocha and espresso, it’s off to NEC again. What’s nice about riding on the coach is I get to sit next to different people and chat about different stuff – yes, I have a life outside of gaming! Today, I have a very interesting conversation with one of my fellow demoers about autism and ADHD and how more and more people are finding that they exhibit symptoms and are getting diagnosed later in life. I do like the fact that, for the most part, the gaming community is very inclusive and welcoming – at least, it is getting that way. There is always room for improvement, but it’s good to be part of a community that is going in the right direction.

Talking about going it the right direction, the drivers have done that today, so we are at the halls in good time. Enough time to get to the stand and get the game set up just so: I put the right tokens within reach of the players and arrange the player boards and cards that make sense to play with and when I do ‘The Teach’. For all those doing The Teach, getting to set up prior to players arriving is a godsend, and having things set up in a way that will answer most questions before they get asked is even better (to those being given The Teach, please save your questions until the end; I know personally I am terrible for not following this rule, but don’t do what I do; do what I say). That way, players can get down to what they came to do as quickly as possible: to play.

Demand has been so great for Expeditions that a second table has been set up to satisfy the eager cultists of the new. Even with two games set up, the standard answer for people who want to play it is ‘if you aren’t booked, we might have a slot free in… 2024.’ Yeah, it’s popular.

But then again, so is everything else on the stand. I even get two players wanting to do a video of game play on D.A.G.G.E.R, so I put on my best Youtube face (you know, the really irritating one with the mouth half open in surprise – JUST STOP! ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! WE GET IT!) and deliver a high-quality hour of gaming (and thanks for coming back to say thanks – it is very much appreciated). We have some fun.

Today, I am working the long shift – I won’t be getting lunch until mid-afternoon – but I am working/playing so hard that I barely notice the time. In fact, it gets to the point where the stand manager has to say ‘make this a mini demo or you won’t be able to get your lunch.’ Bless – she’s looking out for me.

If day one’s lunch hour was the scouting expedition, day two’s has more structure to it. Like John Lyddon sung, I know what I want, and I know where to get it. Maybe the Bring and Buy… has that guy moved in the queue at all?

To Expo shoppers, I would recommend having a thorough wander around the stalls before parting with cold, hard cash – I had seen the game I was looking for on day one, but after a bit more of a scout saw it slightly cheaper elsewhere (no, Zatu did not have it, but I always pop along to show my face). Though I must say, hats off to the game store who arranged their games alphabetically. Now THAT is a power move.

Due to my late lunch and window in my demoing diary, I have a chance to learn another game and rest my voice, which is now tending towards Christopher Lee’s, in terms of depth and timbre. The other game is The Number by Hisashi Hiyashi, which is taught to me by a fellow demoer and… I hate it. No, that’s unfair. I am just really bad at it. It’s a mix of push your luck and outsmart your opponents, both of which are not my strong points. Each player writes down a three-digit number; the numbers are put in order of size; if the higher numbers share any digits with the lower numbers, they are eliminated and do not score; numbers that do score cannot use those digits again. Very enjoyable, but I am awful at it. I also give Waterfall Park a look over, which I am told is a remake of Chinatown, but more family orientated. Set collection, bidding and tile laying all in one. A bit like Lords of Vegas too.

I am still sore about Lords of Vegas.

I am back to D.A.G.G.E.R. for the last part of the day – a nice bit of co-op to round off Saturday. The crowds are ushered out of the hall by a voice that says ‘go home; we want our dinner.’ We do indeed, so it’s back on the fun bus again, a bit wearier than we were last time, but still in fairly good spirits. Demoers have definitely been hitting the stalls more, and there are a good number of new acquisitions, including some from the… Bring and Buy? How on earth did you manage that? ‘Friends on the outside and GPS,’ they say enigmatically. I have friends on the outside too, you know… why didn’t I think of that? Still, I have given myself very strict instructions to not overdo it – earn it, not spend it, earn it, not spend it… (yeah, it’s always a good idea to set yourself some purchasing goals/limits at UKGE, otherwise things can escalate somewhat…)

Once back at the hotel, it’s a quick change and ready for the out. Myself and two compadres are going on a quest to taste Birmingham’s finest in the Balti Triangle. Apparently, the Balti restaurants in the Balti Triangle are a dying breed (only four left), so this may be a ‘last chance to see’ situation. Also, I have been going to UKGE for the last… nine years now? Really? And I have never ventured to the Balti Triangle.

A half hour walk and no pubs between later, and we make it to Shabab’s, a restaurant made famous by the Hairy Bikers and that has a Balti especially made for the said hirsute riders on the menu. One of our number has found some beers, despite the rest of us having given up (‘fifty yards more! That’s all it was!’), and is kindly sharing his findings with us as the restaurant is BYOB. The food is exquisite, possibly the best curry I have ever had, or at least in the top three, and well worth the trek. When you are at Expo and stay on the site, you do tend to miss out on this kind of experience, so I am glad that I’m not solely based at the NEC. Even the walk back doesn’t seem so bad, though the detour to the CAMRA recommended pub is a rather disappointing on account of the place being closed (‘There’s definitely someone in there – shall we knock?’).

Back at the wonderful UKGE lobby for the last session of gaming. Blood on the Clocktower is still occurring – is it the same game? You never know with Blood on the Clocktower. Our merry throng is a bit frazzled at this point – long walks, big curry, hot, hot heat – so we finish off with a game of Fantasy Realms, a very quick hand-management game that takes longer to score than it does to play (I don’t mind; I like the maths) and off to bed for the last sleep before the last day.

Day 4: And Now, The End Is Near…

One last batch of pastries; one last double expresso; one last ride to the NEC, only this time with one of my good buddy colleagues (added bonus: semi traditional playing of Arlo Guthrie’s ‘Alice’s Restaurant’. If you know, you know).

There is mixed feeling of sadness and relief about today – relief because my legs are barely holding it together now and sadness because it is nearly over for another year. We set up for the last time, stock up with water and chewable mints and brace ourselves for impact again. Although Sunday is traditionally the quietest day, so this should not be as frantic as Friday or Saturday. Nevertheless, my dance card is still very full and I shall go to the ball. Shame about the fallen arches and dodgy hips.

I am still going with the set up I had on previous days – it seems to work really well – and I’ve had a couple of friends from ‘the outside’ pop along to say ‘hi’ – see, I told you I have friends on the outside.

My last lunch hour is spent picking up gifts and bargains from the stalls – you can find some good deals on the last day I’ve heard, if you are willing to shop around, but time is still at a premium, so it’s just a few packs of Pokemon for me from the stall that was doing a very good deal on pre-release boxes. Gotta catch ‘em all…

The last shift is over too soon; the Tannoy announces that the gates are closing and that UKGE 2023 has now finished. A great cheer goes up from the stands – it’s been a good year for trading and demoing. But it’s not quite over for us. Just as we had to set up all the games, now we have to take down all the games.

It's all in this time, not just five of us, and it really is impressive to see how fast a group of determined people can clear up three halls worth of stands, stages and soooo many floor tiles. Games are put in their boxes and cleared away for the next event. Banners are taken down, barriers deconstructed, tables and chairs are folded up and stacked away and the floor tiles are pulled up (having been walked on and charged up for the last three days, these tiles now have the motherload of static charge. I give myself several audible shocks – audible because you can hear the ‘crack’ and me swearing loudly). Considering it took a whole day to set up these stands, it takes just over an hour to pack them all down again.

And that is that. We all say our tearful farewells and make our separate ways from the halls back to our nearest and dearest, laden (or not so laden) with games, aches and memories. See you next year UKGE!

Additional: Is The Demoer’s Life For You?

If you have got through to the end of this tome (I really didn’t expect it to be this long, honest) then congratulations and… are you considering becoming a demoer or working at a big Expo like UKGE?

As I’ve hopefully expressed here, it is an incredibly rewarding thing to do but it is a lot of hard work, so I’ve made a useful checklist for you to see if you have ‘The Right Stuff’:

It’s not about the playing, it’s about the show n tell – many folks will be under the impression that demoing games means playing the games all day. Occasionally, you will get to play, but for the most part you will showing people how to play and rule lawyering so they don’t have to – it’s all about the players experience, not your experience (that said, if you really aren’t enjoying it, it will show, so… yeah).

You will be working from doors open to doors close and you will be very busy – the weekend can be a real test of stamina, so can you be on your feet for days at a time? You won’t need to go into training to do it, but you do need to be able to be on it for long periods of time.

Do you like people? Do you like talking to them? You’ll be meeting a lot of them – now I have not had a bad experience from any of the player I have met, but this is very much a people facing job, so people skills are handy. That said, a number of demoers go into demoing to challenge their own social anxiety – it’s a big step and I salute every one of them. Me? Oh, I’m just socially inept…

Can you handle the FOMO? There will be a lot going on and you may miss it, but on the other hand you are creating your own event space, so who’s missing out now? If you can keep your head while all around are losing theirs etc. and all that.

So there you go – can you take it? I’m sure you can – you got this far, didn’t you? If you fancy it, you know who to talk to (suppliers, game stores, publishers, designers) and who knows? Maybe I’ll see you on the stand next year  at UKGE– I’ll be the one with Christopher Lee voice…